Reviewed: Deborah Willis, Vanishing and Other Stories

Deborah Willis, Vanishing and Other Stories
(Harper Perennial)
288 p.
Review by Tobias Carroll

Vanishing and Other Stories, Deborah Willis’s first work of fiction, is a collection of precise observations, showcasing particular groups under some sort of duress. Set largely in Canada, Willis breaks down families and friends; separates lovers from lovers and parents from children; and tells the stories of what happens next. Observed in here are minor details and major traumas, with particular attention paid to her characters’ faiths and daily rituals, their bookshelves and record collections.

As the title indicates, Willis is fond of studying relationships when one component is removed: a disappeared father, a vanished mother, a popular acquaintance suddenly jilted from her social position. To call “This Other Us,” perhaps the collection’s strongest single work an examination of the evolution of the dynamic between three friends, two of them lovers, doesn’t do it justice. Though it is a pitch-perfect evocation of lives outside of the mainstream of society, it is also, more fundamentally, a story about the unknowability of anyone else, and the unexpected highs and brutal lows that this unknowability can trigger.

Willis neatly juggles time and narrators in some of these stories. “Vanishing” alternates between scenes of the family’s life with their now-absent father and their lives without him in the succeeding decades, fraught with bad marriages and worse habits. “Remember, Relive” has a similar structure, juxtaposing scenes of a wedding with the years that follow — though the failing memory of its protagonist’s mother adds layers of both mystery and anguish to that which it recounts. (It doesn’t hurt that Willis has the rare skill of being able to deftly write in the second person.) And “The Weather” is narrated by a father and daughter, offering two perspectives that converge but never meet, circling around a particularly unsettling event.

“Rely,” in which the narrator’s sometimes-strained relationship with his daughter prompts him to recall an old boyfriend of his mother’s, opens with a line that could serve as an epigraph for the entire collection: “People just disappear.” Yet some of the strongest stories here, including the aforementioned “The Other Us” as well as “Escape,” in which a widower turns to gambling, are those in which vanishings seem the least overt. While the unifying concept of this collection is an intriguing one, there are times over the course of the book when it threatens to feel formulaic: establish group, subtract one member, proceed. Willis’s clear prose, empathy for her characters, and attention to detail all impress; and I remain eager to see what her next step will be.